Inequality exists in all societies, in some form or another, and Marxists support the idea that the root of all inequality is social class prejudice. This is based on the Marxist conflicting theory, and the fundamental belief is that the ‘Bourgeoisie’ (the ruling class) use the capitalist economy in order to exploit and oppress the ‘Proletariat’ (the working-class). Aristocrats enjoy their economic advantage and the power they have over their workers, and thus they treat them badly to ensure that the system stays as it is. They have influence on culture and on everyday life in communities because their control of the social infrastructure influences the social superstructure, such as the media, the schooling system and social services. Contemporary evidence suggests that this has a level of truth because Rupert Murdoch has been condemned for influencing the media to favour the Conservative party for his own political and economic gains. It is the superstructure that is responsible for reinforcing inequality through primary and secondary socialisation, according to Marxists.
The working-class do not react to this because they are in a state of “fake awareness”, which means that they are ignorant of the realistic situation by being led to believe that society is a meritocracy. Althusser once stated that schools are “big machines that create myths”, and one belief is that society is meritocratic. The “ideological state apparatus”, meaning the social superstructure that controls ideas and beliefs, for instance the media, is what is what reinforces these states of misdirected understanding.
One area where there is evidence of social inequality is in education. According to the ‘Department of Education and Skills’, there is a link between social class and academic achievement. In 2005, for instance, 76% of children from professional backgrounds achieved to get five or more GCSE’s between A*-C, compared to about 32% of students from non-academic backgrounds. Despite the fact that each child’s grades have been gradually improving over the years, the gap continues to widen and the social class inequalities in academic achievement is more obvious than ever. These statistics reinforce the clear link between cultural/material capital and achievement in schools.
Bowles and Gintis are of the opinion that children, especially the ones from poorer backgrounds, learn obedience to the unfair system, and accept the fact that they are powerless. They argue that schools reinforce inequality through encouraging children to remain in their social classes, for instance, by openly assuming that poorer will end up in low-payed jobs, and in the same sense, expecting kids from richer backgrounds to achieve professional jobs, such as in business. In his study of “Lads and Ear’oles” in the 70s, the sociologist Paul Willis learnt of differing opinions and perspectives amongst male students from both social classes. He came to the conclusion that children from working class backgrounds tended to have a negative opinion of school and were much more likely to mess around in class. In the end, they tended to have far less school achievement than their richer counterparts, and were much more likely to accept working-class jobs and statuses.
Another area where there is evidence of social inequality is in the health sector. According to the ‘World Health Organisation’, men from the most deprived areas of Britain tended to have nine fewer years of life in comparison to men from the richest areas. There is seven years difference for the female equivalent between the richest and the poorest communities. The general assumption in science is that they usually have worse diets, because they have less money to spend on healthy food and usually have a worse understanding of nutrition. These factors can increase the likelihood of obesity, and other eating disorders. In some cases, this can lead to school bullying, which would mean that they were more distracted from their academic subjects. Complications of health can also lead to mental illnesses, such as depression, which often leads to the same conclusions as bullying. Wilkinson supports this crucial link by stating that there is a relationship that can be measured between poor health and yearly income. In the ‘General Home Inspection’ of 1999, 32% of working-class families had stated that they had at least one member suffering from chronic illnesses, in comparison to 12.5% of those from families who has professional careers. Not being able to afford prescriptions poses as a threat for the working class in securing good health. Though this is only applicable to England, as Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have free prescriptions. Some individuals are of the opinion that private healthcare offer better treatment (though this is entirely subjective), and if we hypothetically consider this to be true, this puts the poorer communities under a disadvantage because they do not have an equal access to top-quality health services like the richest communities.
Social injustices can explain fewer achievements amongst people from ethnic minorities in the education system and in society as a whole. There is an unfair percentage of ethnic minority prisoners who also experience material and cultural deprivation. About 49% of all prisoners are black (‘Prison Reform Trust’), and around 57% of Afro-Caribbean families are single parent, compared to about 23% of ethnically white families. Generally, children from ethnic minority groups tend to underperform academically, and a larger proportion of them receive free school meals (‘FSM’). 38% of Pakistani children receive FSM, including %*% of Bangladeshis, 26% of Afro-Caribbean students and 41% of ethnically black African students. In the workplace, Afro-Caribbean people tend to experience the least amount of social mobility and have high unemployment rates. This may explain the crime rates – this is according to Merton’s ‘strain theory’, where people commit crime because of status frustration. Simple survival tactics would be another reason for many individuals turning towards crime. Therefore, people from ethnic minority groups tend to do worse in school because they are more likely to come from more disadvantaged backgrounds. They are more likely to turn towards crime for the same reasons.
Many Feminist Marxist are of the opinion that social inequality can also be heavily associated with gender inequality. They believe that women are portrayed to be inferior in the capitalist economy, and Margaret Benston develops this argument further by stating that the role of women in the capitalist system is to mainly do domestic chores for free and to nurture the workers of the futures, who will contribute to the economy themselves later on in life. To extend on this point, many believe that women are merely “second-hand workers”. The Second World War (1939-1945) would be shining evidence of this. It is where women took over the jobs of their husbands who went to war. Though it must be remembered that society on a whole has modernised since this period, so it would be relatively hard making legitimate comparisons between the two. Also, Feminist Marxists believe that women still face the “glass ceiling”, which stops most of them from reaching the top jobs. Also in economically tough times, it is easier to get rid of women than men. Thus, if we consider this approach, it is easy to see the link between gender and class inequality.
Max Weber agreed on the fundamentals of Marxism, though many of his ideas differ greatly from Karl Marx’s. He, along with many of his followers, agreed that society was split into four different categories: ‘the Privileged’ – the ones at the top of society, ‘the petti Bourgeoisie’ – the businessmen and the self-employed, ‘the White Collar workers – the lower middle-class, and ‘the Blue Collar workers – the non-professional workers. Weber gave consideration towards social class, but they also put emphasis on the individual’s status and power in the community. To Weber, each of these factors are different, but to Marx, each were synonymous. Status refers to a person’s social position and the respect society has for them, whereas power refers to the individual’s membership to the formal and informal sections of society.
Weber’s ideas allows us to understand more about ethnic and gender inequality that exists in society, and these exist for reasons that aren’t necessarily associated only with class inequality. Instead they are example of status inequality. It also explains that status and power are effectively in the hands of the most populous ethnic group, and in the UK, that means for ethnically white people. This means that it is much harder for people from ethnic minorities to compete. This is why people from ethnic minorities are often associated with low-wage jobs, sub-standard quality of living, and disadvantaged communities. Officially, 70% of Bangladeshi children live in poverty (‘Poverty.org’), compared to about 60% of Pakistanis, 30% of the Indian and Afro-Caribbean community and 20% of ethnically white people. Weberian theorists argue that even when people from ethnic minority backgrounds do the same job as white people, they don’t receive the same status. This is because the former groups often face more prejudice and discrimination by white workers because they see non-white workers as threats to their jobs. In consequence to this, people from ethnic minority groups suffer from status inequality as well as class prejudice.
The ‘dual market theory’ (another Weberian concept by Barron and Norris) splits society into two different sects: the primary and secondary labour markets. The former includes full-time professional jobs that require a lot of skills and experience, including lawyers and doctors. They argue that white males are the most likely to fit into this group. The latter sector is quite the antonym to the former. This group includes jobs that don’t require a high level of skills and experiences, for instance shop keepers and cleaners. This is the job market that is most associated with students, and it also has an unfair proportion of women and ethnic minorities. There is often less social mobility, so therefore it’s harder to find any promotions that offer a higher pay and status. Barron and Norris argue that despite men being employed in both sectors, the majority find work in the primary sector. There are many theories that attempt to explain this. Firstly, women are far more likely to work more for less money. They are also less likely to be committed to their jobs for familial and domestic circumstances, such as prioritising housework and caring for children. Women also tend to be less organised with their work. Therefore, Barron and Norris argue that status inequality is to blame.
Another Weberian approach is by Rex and Thompson, who argue that ethnic minorities often deal with more class and status inequality, and this is worsened by racism. In London alone, black people are 28 times more likely than white people to be ‘stopped and searched’ by police. The police are more likely to target ethnic minorities because of “canteen culture”, which is a term that was created by Reiner to refer to beliefs and prejudices within the police force). Alas, this leads to a wider spread of social exclusion and frustration amongst ethnic minorities. Rex and Thompson believe that subcultures, with an unfair proportion of black people, form as a result of social prejudice and injustice.
Weberian theorists believe that it is possible to associate gender inequality and status inequality. In reference to the gender pay gap, women generally earn 40% less than their male counterparts. This is most probably because there is a higher proportion of women working in the secondary labour market. Additionally, women are more likely to work in the public sector, such as carers and teachers, where the wages are considerably less than the private sector. Women also have a different status in the work environment. What ‘Boundless’ say is that women are far more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Therefore, we see that social inequality is not necessarily the root of all inequality, though undeniably is does have a role.
Many Feminists tend to disagree to an extent with Marxism. Radical Feminists mainly believe that society is a patriarchy that is split between men and women. They also believe that domestic abuse is a tool by the male population to oppress and control women, and that it reflects their societal power. Around 1.4 million women experience domestic abuse yearly (‘The Guardian’) – though the counterargument of that would be that more than 40% of domestic abuse victims are male (also ‘The Guardian’). Furthermore, domestic workloads tend to vary according to gender. Unemployed women spend on average 57 hours on domestic chores (Walker and Woods), and very recent research has uncovered that employed women also spend roughly the same amount as unemployed women spend. The majority of that time is spent looking after children. Ann Oakley, a renowned feminist, says ‘In only a small number of marriages is the husband notably domesticated… home and children are the woman’s primary responsibility.’ Therefore domestic work is very often considered a female role, rather than a male one.
Thus, as the Weberian concepts that have been addressed, vertical and horizontal discrimination exists, according to Feminists.
Vertical discrimination: the differences in status and income between men and women.
Horizontal discrimination: channelling people to take up jobs on the basis of their gender. An example of this is where a man would be encouraged to find a competitive career, yet often allows a higher income and higher opportunities of social mobility.
Therefore Feminists disagree with Marxist beliefs about social inequality and its root in society, especially as a catalyst for many other forms of discrimination.
Postmodernists also disagree with Marxists about discrimination. Waters, a popular Postmodernist, believes that the social classes are diminishing as a legitimate symbol of personality. Instead, how we, as individuals, spend our time and money and our ideas about society is central to our identities. No one is forced into a particular lifestyle (with exceptions) any longer because of the recent rise in living standards. The rise in the popularity of leisurely sports, like baseball, in the 1920’s US would be a classic example of this. And the idea that our culture has become freer as a result of raised living standards is undoubtedly plausible, yet it contrasts greatly to fundamental Marxism, Weberianism, Feminism, and to a lesser extent, Functionalists.
The Functionalist approach to discrimination is different to that of Postmodern and Marxist concepts as they argue that social stratification exists on purpose as it is beneficial to society, which is meritocratic. Social stratification is a ranking system that is based on moral judgments. This is grounded on: respect, supremacy, social distinctions, approval and disproval. The modern social strata reflects the normative consensus, and what society considers to be valuable. And therefore, as Davis and Moore suggest, the top jobs should, and are, given to the most intelligent and skilled workers because they are more of a use to society.
On a whole, many theories exist that attempt to explain social inequality and injustice. We have, on one hand, Marxist concepts who argue that social inequality and the struggle between the rich and the poor is the greatest example of discrimination to be seen, and other approaches see it as an issue that is a lot more intricate than the Marxists believe it to be. And the Functionalists see it not as a huge issue at all.